Sunday quiz

Who did Lord Acton think was the great hero of the American Civil War?

In a lecture on the American Civil War delivered in 1866 Lord Acton wrote:

Doubtless, in this crisis of its political existence the nation has displayed many noble qualities: patriotism, fortitude in adversity, respect for authority, and in some measure the difficult arts of subordination and discipline. The civil power has never been threatened or weakened by the resistance of a popular commander; differences of social station have not interfered with the organisation of the army; military rank has not disturbed the level surface of ordinary life, the officer and the soldier have been merged in the peaceful citizen. In the number of the leaders there have arisen men of high ability, and at least one who has built himself a name among names that will never die.

Which leader did Acton think had built “a name among names that will never die”?

The whole essay is rather mind-bending.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

36 thoughts on “Sunday quiz”

  1. Lord Acton famously wrote to R.E. Lee “I grieve more for what was lost at Appomattox than I rejoice at what was gained at Waterloo”.

    I don’t know who he is referring to as a name among names, probably Davis.

    1. He does have nice things to say about Johnson, but Lee is his hero. Acton criticizes Davis (not by name) and the rest of the Confederate political leadership for rejecting Lee’s proposal to free and arm the slaves to fight for the South, which he treats as having been an idea with some chance of being adopted.

      1. Lee does deserve credit for discountenancing the proposal to continue resistance after Appomattox through guerrilla war; Jefferson Davis was all for this after the fall of Richmond, but Lee would have none of it. Decades of continued war could have been the result had Lee (and Joe Johnston) not placed their prestige on the line in opposition. It appears that Acton was alluding to this action of Lee’s; if he had not acted as he did, American history could have taken a very nasty turn for the worse and visited gratuitous suffering on generations yet unborn.

        1. Why would continued Southern resistance necessarily have been a bad thing? Yes, more people would have died, but perhaps then Southern racism would have been destroyed root and branch, instead of defeating Reconstruction and persisting even today.

      2. Wasn’t the “arm the slaves” idea Patrick Cleburne’s? (Of course, it has long historical roots, but Cleburne was the Confederate general who first proposed it.)

        Of course, what really hacks me is Acton’s supercilious belief that America had not produced a world-class literary talent by 1866. Edgar Allen bleeping Poe. ‘Nuff said.
        (Joseph Henry was a world-class experimental physicist, but America did not produce a world-class theoretician until J. Willard Gibbs, who flourished in the postbellum era.)

        1. Yes, it was “Irish Pat” Cleburne for sure, a great division commander on the battlefield who never rose higher because of saying things like that. I’ve never read of any association of that sentiment with Robert E. Lee.

  2. I’m guessing after quickly reading the essay he meant Lincoln, but dripping with the bitterness (as evidenced by not even naming him) of a rationalizing aristocrat. cf, 0.1%er’s “underappreciatedness”

    1. Whew — happy to be wrong. In spite of his one very quotable (and reasonable) sentence, Acton seems to have been an extremely well-educated fool.

        1. Thinking about upper class twits, we have: “differences of social station have not interfered with the organisation of the army”

          How much of an issue was this (not in the US civil war, but in the earlier Napoleonic wars)? If there’s anything I’ve learned from Richard Sharpe and Temeraire, it’s that MODERN authors about the British during the Napoleonic wars make a big deal of this. What’s not clear to me is how anachronistic this is, a way to throw in some conflict and get the modern reader’s blood boiling, but not actually much relevant to the war or anything else.

          The fact that Acton mentions it suggests that it was at least vaguely in the air. However it doesn’t seem to have changed much by the Crimean war, nor even by WW1, which suggests that it simply wasn’t that important.
          Was Acton ACTUALLY griping more about the long term political consequences of the Napoleonic wars, the idea that after such struggles the winning side is always forced to make some accommodation with the masses, to give them some political power, in the recognition that if they don’t there won’t be a next time; in the particular case we eventually got the Reform Act of 1832.

          1. A lot closer than the Napoleonic wars, there’s the Crimean War – and the only part of that conflict that’s well remembered today is The Charge Of The Light Brigade, which was all about staffing your officer corps with upper-class twits loyal more to their dignity than to their country. Although in Acton’s day other aspects of the war (especially the siege of Sevastopol and the rest of the battle of Balaclava) might have been better remembered.

            Also, as to the “long term political consequences of the Napoleonic wars”, the obvious fallout is that Wellington dominated Conservative politics and the British government for decades – and he was hardly a social reformer, and helped crush the Chartists (though the early 19th century was notable for social reform in England, especially Catholic emancipation and the rise of the abolitionist movement).

  3. It certainly seems to be Andrew Johnson, the former tailor raised to the presidency.

    Acton was not that active in politics compared to Gladstone, Russell, and Palmerston, but was certainly well known to all of them. The UK needed the exports of the USA as much as it needed Confederate exports and this had much to do with why it did not grant recognition to the seceded states.

    Can anyone suggest a book that discusses the process of the abolition of slavery elsewhere in the world in the nineteenth century? Many counties abolished slavery, but only one fought a goddamn civil war over it. If Latin America could emancipate its slaves without an effusion of blood, why could not the United States of America?

    Someone can probably suggest a reasonably good book; my library has numerous books about slavery in this country but none that also discuss in any detail how it was that Simon Bolivar was able to do what political leaders in the USA were unable to do. I will be grateful for any titles which are in print.

    1. If Latin America could emancipate its slaves without an effusion of blood, why could not the United States of America?

      Because white Southerners are the most moral people in the history of everything. Just ask them.

      1. White southerners may well indulge in a great deal of self-flattery regarding their morals, but the northern whites were not prepared to work seriously with the consequences of emancipation; 10 years after the war ended, they had lost interest in the lot of the freedman and wanted to put the past behind them (there was money to be made after all), letting the South resort to its own racial devices for nearly another century.

        The Civil War and Reconstruction were a national failure, not a sectional screw-up.

        1. Yes– Northerners weren’t perfect, therefore they were as bad as Southerners. Or equally causative of badness. Or whatever your point was. Absolutely. Fer sher.

        2. My heavens, what a choice: do I denounce your ignorance of history, or of ethics? Yes, within a decade or so the Northern Republican governing coalition that was for a time committed to imposing some form of a just society on the South lost both their grip on power and their will to continue the struggle, and eventually let the Southern power elite re-impose within their territory their preferred and rather despotic form of oligarchy. Obviously, the exhaustion of the Northerners’ resolve to continue this struggle on behalf of people they’d never met far from their own homes was completely unprecedented and is inconceivable today, and reflects a moral defect wholly equal to that of the white Southern elite themselves. And the traitors who waged bloody war on behalf of slavery and wheedled their way into reimposing tyranny were co-equal actors in a national failure, not the perpetrators and perpetuators of a sectional screw up. Sure, you betcha.

          1. When considering whether to denounce a person’s ignorance or his ethics, I often forget to consider a third possibility—his carelessness and unwillingness to explain in detail what the hell he means (especially when something is written in haste). Perverseness for the sake of provoking an argument is another possibility, but is probably less common in the general population than absent-mindedness.
            Southern culture was such a toxic brew of conceit and callous disregard for human rights other than its own that it was bound to reap some consequences sooner or later. Self-flattery is a near-universal human trait, but a culture which flatters itself by identifying itself proudly with the Cavaliers who stood with King Charles I during the English Civil War (in contrast with the damn riffraff Northerner Roundheads who cut his head off) is pretty sick. There is something serously wrong with a man who has never had to work a lick in his life but who thinks that he can lick a dozen Yankees just because he has always had his way in anything he ever wanted. Those traitors jolly well deserved what they got.
            You can almost always count on getting more mileage out of considering whole systems than by considering subsystems in isolation. Manufacturing profits in the North were to be made by purchasing Southern cotton, from which very nice consumer goods could be made. The whole system made for the failure. How this simple truism translates into an assertion of equal morality between the slave power and the forces of free labor is a mystery (unless a lack of precision in reading is involved).
            Betsy’s comment below is helpful in suggesting an approach to the question about why other nations were able to abolish slavery without massive domestic bloodshed. If this country had managed to do what they were able to manage to do, we would be living in a better world today. Betsy suggests that there were cultural factors (the Catholic Church seeing all colors as people with souls) and demographic (more racial mixing in the population) such that slavery and blackness were not so tightly linked.
            I will eventually drag my ass over to the library and poke around for some actual data, but I suspect that Betsy is on to something. A tip of the hat to her. If I find a good book title I will pass it along.

          2. One book that influenced me a long time ago was “Racism Without Violence” Regarding color in South America. It’s been twenty years, so I don’t remember the rest of the book title or its author.

    2. There’s a terrific book by Peter Kolchin called Unfree Labor: American Slavery and Russian Serfdom–the liberations occurred within a few years of each other. Only a few mentions of Latin America but well worth reading.

      1. Thanks for the suggestion, Kelly. Russia is an interesting contrast since there was such a similarity between serfdom and chattel slavery. My guess at answering my question would be that racial demographics had something to do with the case. The black population in some sections of the seceding states was past 80% of the total; the demographics of Chile and Columbia and other parts of New Spain may have been different. A question calling for expert knowledge and insight has probably been addressed by competent scholars somewhere; it would be nice to know where.

        1. In Latin America race was much more mixed and color was seen along a continuum, for the most part. Also, the Catholic Church saw all colors as people with souls. Contrast Dutch and English views of blacks as subhuman. Generalizing here but the effect was significant. Slavery was not so much linked directly to blackness as it came to be in the Souterhn U.S. by the 1800s.

    3. Don’t forget Haiti.

      I assume it just became less economically necessary in other places. Brazil would be the really interesting one IMHO. And maybe Gypsy slavery in Eastern Europe.

    4. No need to go tailor-bashing. There must have been many a fine tailor back in the day who would have made a better president than Johnson.

    5. “If Latin America could emancipate its slaves without an effusion of blood, why could not the United States of America?”

      Perhaps because no Latin American country was composed of a confederation of individual states, with individual history prior to the confederation, and a political system we call “federalism” that recognized severe limits on the powers of the central government over those various states.

      1. Ken’s suggested solution sounds like the one I had sort of been wondering about, and sounds like a solid possibility. An edict from the Tsar could free the serfs; the least democratic regime on earth could act without having to contend with constitutional checks and balances. Parliament could tell the West Indies that slavery was finished and that was that. In Mexico it involved a presidential decree.

        Ken’s solution takes us into very deep waters which are well worth sailing, now and in the future. It may be that slaveholders had no voting rights or rights of representation in places where the institution could be done away with by a single act by a central authority.

        The basic issue may not be a dead one; the principle that evil may persist longer in settings with political give-and-take than in settings with unbalanced central executive power is, if valid, not without relevance with respect to the issues of our own day.

      2. After the Napoleonic wars, Britain suggested to the newly independent countries in Latin America that, if they wanted to trade with Britain and didn’t want the colonial powers to be allowed to come back, they should do away with slavery. Which most of them did with Brazil being the most notable holdout. It also helped that slavery didn’t have the economic and cultural significance there as it did in the US.

  4. Many counties abolished slavery, but only one fought a goddamn civil war over it. If Latin America could emancipate its slaves without an effusion of blood, why could not the United States of America?

    If Canada could break away from British colonial control without a war, why couldn’t…

    1. I think you meant, “If Canada could break away from British Colonial control without a war, why couldn’t…”

      And as I’m sure you well know, the United States of America could have broken from the Empire without a war, but it would have been about 100 years later.

  5. Just another aristocrat mourning the passing of another fine old feudal institution. General British opinion was firmly against the confederacy (economic interests be damned), but a significant part of the upper classes trembled that another barrier to democracy was falling. Arno Meyer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime documents the grip these people had on Europe right up to 1945.

  6. Foner’s Reconstruction has a lot to say about the re-imposition of forced labor and deprivation of political liberties in the postwar South.

  7. Interesting that the essay never identifies the name… I will have to assume Lincoln, Lee, or Grant (but most likely Lee, since the essay seems southern sympathetic. But it does include the following:

    A slave could make a valid contract; therefore he could not contract a legal marriage, even with the consent of the master. All the safeguards of virtue, all penalties on the breach of the marriage law, or of those laws which are anterior to all human legislation, were held inapplicable to the negro family. I am sure that the voice of nature and of humanity constantly mitigated the law of the land, but it is certain that the Southern jurisprudence denied that the negro is bound by the same moral code as ourselves, and that this belief was shared by the leaders of secession.

    In a great speech at the beginning of the movement, Mr. Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, spoke these words: “The corner stone of our new government rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. Our new government is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Here, then, was a society adopting inequality, not as the natural product of property, descent and merit, but as its very foundation,—a society, therefore, more aristocratically constituted than those of feudal times. The Southern slave-owner was in contradiction to the two principles which animated the Democracy of the Northern States. He denied the absolute essential equality of all men in civil rights; and he denied the justice of the doctrine that the minority possesses nothing which is exempt from the control of the majority, because he knew that it was incompatible with the domestic institution which was as sacred to him as the rights of property.

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